BAR HARBOR — “The world is not an accident,” a Lakota elder known only as “Dan” says in a film coming to Reel Pizza next week. “We don’t always choose our parts.”
“I called you, and you came,” Dan tells writer Kent Nerburn in the film adaptation of the 1994 novel “Neither Wolf nor Dog.” “If you’re too small or too weak, it is too late.”
In the story, Dan calls Nerburn for help writing a book to share his memories and reflections. Nerburn arrives on the Pine Ridge Reservation to work on the project, spends time with Dan and his family and friends, and struggles to understand and build trust with them.
“I don’t feel worthy,” he says in the film. “I feel responsible.”
Director Steven Lewis Simpson is from Scotland. He came to the project already very familiar with Pine Ridge; his 2008 feature “Rez Dogs” and 2012 documentary “A Thunder-Being Nation” were shot there.
Simpson’s status as a non-American allowed him distance from the cultural tensions and helped him be a better “fly on the wall” in his approach to the story, he told the Islander.
“Nerburn is much loved in Indian country,” Simpson said, “but he talks about how there’s always this ghost in the room, which is the history.”
Simpson remembered an evening in someone’s home on the reservation when Nerburn, a diabetic, turned down a sticky bun offered to him.
He feels guilty for refusing the hospitality, Simpson said, and “retreats into himself … The whole time Kent’s sitting there thinking, ‘I have to be appropriate, I have to be respectful.’
“Europeans don’t see the shadow, typically, but we’re open to being friends with abandon,” Simpson continued. “That was crucial because that allowed me to see the awkwardness of Nerburn” in the story.
Playing Dan in the film is Dave Bald Eagle, who Simpson said is “more Dan than Dan.”
Dave Bald Eagle was born in 1919 and died at 97 not long after the film premiered in 2016. He served in the U.S. Army, including as a paratrooper in World War II in Europe. He also was a tribal chief, rodeo cowboy and actor, appearing in and advising on the 1990 classic film “Dances with Wolves.”
“I knew I was setting out on an impossible task, finding someone that can play this role that is so spectacularly formed in people’s minds,” Simpson said. “In the novel, the character was about 80, but I knew I had to go for somebody a lot older, now. It wasn’t about his age, it was about the era he was from. Their generation are gone. Dave was one of the very, very last.”
A climax of the film is a scene at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
“It’s the biggest departure from the novel,” Simpson said. “With [the character] Dan, it was a band of the Lakota that were massacred there. But it was Dave’s band. It was Dave’s people that were massacred at Wounded Knee.
“So we had Dave improvise the entire sequence,” Simpson said, departing from the screenplay, written by Nerburn.
“He poured his heart out. It was just me, my son Guy and the two of them [Dave Bald Eagle and Christopher Sweeney, who plays Nerburn]. At the end, Dave turned to Chris and said, ‘I’ve been holding this in for 95 years.’
“It’s this extreme close up, that’s what the audience is experiencing. When we were filming it, I had tears streaming down my face.”
Simpson said that moment made him think of his role in the film differently. “I’ve never put so much work into a film, at all levels, but I’ve also never been so distant from my work as an artist. It was all about bringing Dave Bald Eagle to that spot and sharing it with the world.”
Simpson self-produced and self-distributed the film, which premiered in 2016. He has taken an unorthodox approach to theatrical releases, delaying a DVD or other on-demand releases, and rolling it out gradually across the country.
“In the old days, they would release a film and slowly work it around the country,” Simpson said. So for this film, he thought, “instead of starting in the big cities, I’m going to start where the project’s best known.”
They began in South Dakota and then opened in May 2016 in Minneapolis. The film has been screened in 120 theaters, but only in about 15 percent of the country, he said. It’s been at 23 theaters in Washington State, and now will be at five in Maine.
Screenings at Reel Pizza are set for Tuesday through Thursday, Feb. 13-15, at 5:30 and 8 p.m.